By Vicki Weisfeld
“The Fugitive Kind” is the framework Bonnie J. Monte is using for her Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey Book Club discussions of Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) and his work. Monte is STNJ’s long-time artistic director, and the theater’s next Book Club discussion group this spring will focus on the play Henry V, Shakespeare’s stirring encomium to the Battle of Agincourt.
She chose “the fugitive kind” because Williams’s “vast and complex universe” is liberally peopled with such individuals, whom she calls “a tribe of broken spirits.” You can find one—or more than one—in every play: Rev. Shannon in Night of the Iguana, Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (played by Paul Newman in the movie version, pictured here with Elizabeth Taylor), and practically the whole cast of Camino Real. The Fugitive Kind is also the title of the award-winning film starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, and Joanne Woodward, created from Williams’s play, Orpheus Descending. Partly because he perfected a certain kind of character—drifters, misfits, people out of sync with society, often through no fault of their own—portraying them without malice or condescension. We know such characters in daily life, just as we recognize his drinkers, his womanizers, his people who hide behind religion or lust after the unattainable. We know people like that too—people who are “their own worst enemies.”
Williams’s older sister Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and by the 1940s was considered out of control. At that time, treatments for mental disorders were limited, and Rose (like Rosemary Kennedy) was subjected to a lobotomy that left her institutionalized. Later in life Williams felt great guilt about Rose’s fate and was a loyal, financially supportive brother. Rose’s shadow is cast across many of Williams’s most memorable characters, including, clearly, Laura in The Glass Menagerie and even Blanche DuBois in Streetcar.
Not only did the playwright create a vast body of work, he also expanded the form with experimental (albeit not popular—yet!) plays and covered subjects not openly addressed on stage before, like homosexuality and blasphemy. His forms were innovative too. No other Broadway play had used the audience aisles for cast entrances until Camino Real, Monte says. But her highest praise is for him as “a connoisseur of language,” who sets brutal violence alongside his poetic form.
Lord Byron from Camino Real: “Shelley’s burning was finally very pure! But the body, the corpse, split open like a grilled pig. –And then Trelawney—as the ribs of the corpse unlocked—reached into them as a baker reaches quickly into an oven! –And snatched out—as a baker would a biscuit—the heart of Shelley out of the blistering corpse!”
John in Summer and Smoke: “You—white-blooded spinster! You so right people, pious pompous mumblers, preachers and preacher’s daughter, all muffled up in a lot of worn out magic!”
Williams embeds his lines in a very specific visual world, providing detailed and precise stage directions and set descriptions, as in Summer and Smoke: “(T)he sky should be a pure and intense blue (like the sky of Italy as it is so faithfully represented in the religious paintings of the Renaissance),” and, when day turns to night, which constellations to project onto the now-dark sky.
In the 1970’s, Williams fell out of favor in critical circles, and Monte says the theater community was downright cruel. His later plays were not well received, and many critics and academics thought his reputation was in permanent decline. A dab of homophobia may have contributed and the machinations of a poorly managed literary estate (a reputation-damaging fate he shared with Edgar Allan Poe). Nonetheless, Williams’s plays speak for themselves and survive, even thrive. The later, less renowned works remain capable of stimulating audiences to catch up to him, think new thoughts, and see the world in new ways.